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Porgy and Bess

Review - Porgy and Bess at the London Coliseum

Mark Shenton
Mark Shenton

Originally premiered at Boston's Colonial Theatre in 1935 before transferring to Broadway's Alvin Theatre (now the Neil Simon), Porgy and Bess has its roots firmly in the traditions of musical theatre. But it is such an epic, sweeping and musically rich work - and such a dense, difficult show to pull off, vocally as well as theatrically - that nowadays we are more likely to see it presented in opera houses, rather than commercial musical theatres.

Now English National Opera - which these days likes to plant a foot in both camps, with an annual summer popular musical inserted into its repertoire (Sunset Boulevard, Carousel and Chess have featured) - has produced a sterling revival of this truly magnificent show as part of its main season. It may just be not only the best musical in town, but also the best opera, too.

The show completely earns its place in a season that also includes Lucia di Lammermoor, La Boheme and The Magic Flute - not to mention more modern pieces like Philip Glass's Akhnaten.  There's a dramatic intensity and melodic warmth to George Gershwin's stunning score, set to lyrics by his brother Ira Gershwin, that's hardly been rivalled in any other musical of the 20th century. Songs like "Summertime", "I Got Plenty O'Nuttin", "It Ain't Necessarily So", "I Loves You, Porgy" and "There's a Boat That's Leavin' Soon for New York" have become standards of the Great American songbook.

ENO's new staging - a co-production with the Met in New York and Dutch National Opera - gives it weight, scale and majesty. Director James Robinson is joined by a team of regular Broadway creatives that include designer Michael Yeargan, costume designer Christine Zuber and lighting designer Catherine Zuber to fill the stage with a thrilling sense of a community's life on Catfish Row in Charleson, South Carolina.

But what ENO can also bring to it is thrilling musicianship, too, with its resident orchestra under the powerful baton of John Wilson, and a truly massive cast. There are 23 named characters, plus a chorus of over 40, plus six additional actors and eight additional kids. You don't get this in the West End (not even in 42nd Street).

And it's downright astonishing that ENO have assembled a company of international black singers of such strength: not that they don't exist (they clearly do!), but that they've gone to the trouble to cast their net so far and wide, including America, South Africa and Britain.

From the plaintive, heartbreaking rendition of "Summertime" with which ENO Harewood artist Nadime Benjamin opens the show as Clara, to the stunning and heartbreaking title performances of Eric Greene and Nicole Cabell, it is performed with alternating notes of tenderness and fury. There are also notable performances from Nmon Ford as Bess's original lover Crown, and Frederick Ballentine as her drug dealer Sporting Life.

There's nothing else like it in the West End right now. But you have to be fast. There are only a total of 14 performances before the run ends on 17th November.

Porgy and Bess is at the London Colisuem until 17th November.

Porgy and Bess tickets are available now. 

Originally published on

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